Fantasy Races in Writing

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The Blue Bandit
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Fantasy Races in Writing

Postby The Blue Bandit » Mon Feb 02, 2015 2:26 pm

I've been looking at potentially diving into writing a novel set in a fantasy world I created something like 15 years ago. For backstory: it was conceived as a setting to run some D&D games in for some friends of mine. We grew up with Warcraft 2 and whatnot, so orcs were a major race. Anyway, I wanted to make it somewhat unique from the typical D&D setting, so I changed the focus of the races...dwarves became competent seafarers and pirates, elves dropped the magic and nature loving thing and became the primary upholders of religion, and all that kind of stuff and things.

Over the last few years, I've questioned my choices in going with the "traditional" fantasy races for the setting. I've gone back and forth between using them or making everything human of varying ethnicity, so to speak...and some places in between. I've seen in various places on the internet a lot of criticism and sometimes outright rudeness towards writers/content creators who make use of these traditional fantasy races in their works. Apparently there's a very vocal segment of our culture who feel that elves, dwarves, and orcs are tired and played-out and could never possibly be interesting in any way.

What are your thoughts on the subject? Are you happy to use those races in your own creative endeavors, or do you feel like they are unoriginal and overused?

I personally feel like there is an overemphasis placed on pure originality in storytelling, and that it is an unrealistic expectation. I think it puts many creators in the mindset of "have to make something different/unique/never before seen" as their priority, and that for many amateur writers and artists, that can detrimental to their development. I don't care if a writer has dwarves and elves and whatever - as long as the story is good and the characters are believable. Agile elf archer #45 is nothing but a stereotype, but a character who has personality and depth that goes far beyond "elves are aloof and old" is potentially interesting and engaging.

Pardon me if I was rambling; I am not necessarily forming coherent thoughts at the moment.
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Re: Fantasy Races in Writing

Postby pkalata » Mon Feb 02, 2015 2:52 pm

Originality is in the telling. Don't recycle Tolkien because it's been done. But if you want to give a race an interesting spin, go ahead. I'm a fan of Michael A. Stackpole's Dragon Crown War Saga because his use of elves makes them compelling in the narrative.

Examine why you're using the classic races - does it serve a purpose to have the races be elves and dwarves or would renaming work better? One of the benefits to using the classic races is that they are tropes. You can simply say elf, dwarf, halfing, and orc and people know what you mean, within certain parameters. Dwarves are an orderly people, so exploring dwarven culture through the lens of a highly regimented society (perhaps one inspired by feudal Japan) can be interesting. But using classic, trope-laden races means there are certain things you can't change and still have it be the fantasy race you call it. Halflings can't be tall and orcs can't be willowy pacifists.

Regardless of what you do choose to go with, avoid making the races monolithic, stereotypical, or offensive. No race or species is perfectly in sync with itself. Not even the Borg from Star Trek - Hugh and Seven of Nine both were different. Just like real-world cultures, races should have tendencies but not absolutes. Using tropes is fine as long as they are written well and used cleverly; subverting tropes is fun. Just don't have your races be direct ripoffs of established takes on them and you'll be fine. Lastly, avoid the really, really crappy pitfall of modeling real world cultures as fantasy races (the orcs-are-a-thinly-veiled-allegory-for-Africans kind of BS). That's the laziest of writing and really offensive.
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Re: Fantasy Races in Writing

Postby tink333 » Mon Feb 02, 2015 11:17 pm

I only have a couple of things to add, and disclaimer. I'm not the writer; JediSoth is, but I read a lot and I edit for him.

First, think about your characters and what makes them interesting. Invest in your characters, no matter how the race thing shakes out. Someone once told my hubby that the most important part of a story was the characters, their back stories, their struggles, their journeys.

Second, if you're not really sure about the novel thing, why not dip your toes in the pool and write a short story? It's still your work, you own the copyright, and you get a feel for if what you're thinking can gain enough traction to be a full-length novel.

I'm guessing you're not writing currently, and if I'm guessing wrong, please set me straight. The most difficult thing I've heard writers talk about in other groups is that it's hard to get into the habit of writing something/anything on a daily basis. My recommendation is to develop a story line and begin writing it.

I don't know if people here are accustomed to posting snippets and asking for feedback. It's something we did in another group I was in. If that's something you could do here, I know I'd give honest and respectful feedback.

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Re: Fantasy Races in Writing

Postby The Blue Bandit » Tue Feb 03, 2015 1:53 pm

I think I agree with everything on the topic that's been said thus far. It wasn't as much a question posed for advice as one of curiosity - how do other people, writers or not, feel about this?

Pkalata, you managed to explain a lot of how I feel about it far better than I was able to. What it comes down to, if I am to write stories in the world I'm considering, is that question of "Why?" Do I gravitate towards those classic races simply because this was developed initially for a D&D game (which it's never actually been used for), or is there more of a reason? If I am trying to break some of the tropes and stereotypes that come along with using those races, might I be better served by renaming them, retooling them, coming up with something different all together?

It all touches upon a thought that I probably didn't convey very well in my original post: ultimately, a character's race is just one small part of what defines him/her. We are all defined in some way by cultural, national, and ethnic backgrounds, but that alone does not define who we are. I think the backlash I've seen against these traditional fantasy peoples may be in response largely to writers who use the character's race as a crutch to lean upon, taking the lazy route instead of creating a unique, interesting individual with goals and desires and likes and dislikes who happens to also be a dwarf.

Tink, you also summed up my feelings quite well in your first paragraph. I was trying to get at just what you said, and ultimately the characters for this novel, whenever I decide to get to it, are already defined in my head regardless of what their race might be.

In response to the rest of your post, Tink, I am not currently writing (or maybe I am, now, but that's something that's only happened over the course of the last few days after a conversation with my wife over the weekend, which sparked some of my posts here). Most of the pieces I've written over the last few years have been short stories - I have one in each volume of Sojourn - and I have probably a half dozen of them in various stages of production, at least, and concepts for a handful more. I did hit a period where I was writing on my lunch breaks, and wrote something like three short stories in two or three days.

To proceed to talk about myself, my current plan of attack regarding writing in general is to get to those short stories. I have rewrites to do, and I have drafts that are incomplete, but I want to start getting them out to different markets again, like I had started to a little before Sojourn 1 became a thing. I'll use those to get myself into the habit, shake off some of the rust, and if I am lucky enough (or as skilled as I think I am) I might even pull a professional sale out of it.

The ideas for longer works aren't going anywhere, and I can start them at any time.

TL;DR: pkalata and tink333 are right, and I need to write.
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Re: Fantasy Races in Writing

Postby keithcurtis » Fri Jun 16, 2017 12:58 pm

My only advice is that if you are not writing D&D fiction, don't write D&D fiction. Ditto Tolkien. If you want to use elves, and dwarves, etc, that's fine, but look back at some of the folkloric sources and find a fresh take. Rick Riordan (of Percy Jackson fame) has a new series utilizing Norse mythology. His elves and dwarves feel nothing like standard takes, and extrapolate from a rich body of lore. Avoid making standard associations.

By D&D fiction, I mean all of the stuff that goes into what we consider to be just "fantasy" these days: The multi-racial and individually specialized archetypes that form an "adventuring party". Make it fresh and new.

Above all, avoid using orcs. They properly only belong in Tolkien's Middle Earth. Likewise avoid "halflings". You can have a diminutive race, but don't just file the serial numbers off of something.

All of the above is, of course, a thoroughly subjective and personal viewpoint.

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Re: Fantasy Races in Writing

Postby clintmemo » Fri Jun 16, 2017 1:14 pm

The Blue Bandit wrote: so I changed the focus of the races...dwarves became competent seafarers and pirates, elves dropped the magic and nature loving thing and became the primary upholders of religion, and all that kind of stuff and things.


This feels like a big step in the right direction to me. Is there really any reason for the seafarers to be dwarves at all? I think it would be much more interesting to have them all be humans, each with their won cultural backgrounds, with aspects both good and bad. Although, I suspect it would be a lot of work to make them familiar enough to be relatable yet not direct copies of something well known.
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Re: Fantasy Races in Writing

Postby Ikoma » Fri Jun 16, 2017 2:58 pm

keithcurtis wrote:Rick Riordan (of Percy Jackson fame) has a new series utilizing Norse mythology. His elves and dwarves feel nothing like standard takes, and extrapolate from a rich body of lore.


And you have made my week with that tidbit, sir!
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